Church Planting and the Internet Café: A Case Study
Galen and Kate graduated from Midwest Bible Seminary in the United States, where God gave them a vision for multiplication church planting in Eurasia. Henry, a Chinese from Singapore, caught his passion for mission while preparing for ministry in Singapore and married Myra, a Filipina accountant who attended his local church. They joined an international mission where they met Galen and Kate, and together they decided to form a church-planting team to work in Eurasia.
After spending a year in language school together, they moved to a large city in Eurasia where they began their ministry. Henry, gifted in evangelism, had soon gathered together a group of young people who wanted to know more about Jesus. Myra, with her gift of hospitality, and Kate, with her gifts of evangelism and music, made these gatherings great fun and fellowship. Within months Kate had led several young women to pray to receive Christ, and Henry had led three young men. As Henry continued evangelistic outreach, Galen began to teach the men the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, which he felt essential to their growth and maturity. Kate tried to encourage the women to study Scripture with her, but although they promised to come, only two or three did so regularly. Although these young people came from two different ethnic groups, the team used the national language of government and schooling for their ministry.
As the team developed more intimate friendships with these new believers, they discovered that faith in Christ came with significant costs. Several expressed fear about exclusion from their families if they should disclose their new faith. To make matters more tense, the parents of two of the young men banished them from their homes after they learned that they had become followers of Christ. Galen and Kate asked church members in the United States to help provide food and shelter for these young men during their crises. As the team struggled with how to become a positive presence in the local community, Henry proposed that they start a small business, an Internet café, where the two young men could work and make a living. Henry raised money from his home church in Singapore to purchase computers, and Galen challenged his home church to lease a shop in the market area where they could open the café. Within a few months they had an Internet café up and running, and they hired the men and women in their discipleship group to run the business. Myra, with her business background, served as the financial manager and accountant.
The café proved very appealing to urban youth and also solved several ministry problems. The men who needed support now had a regular job and could afford their own food and lodging. Several of the women also worked in the café, where Kate then held regular Bible studies to help them mature in their faith. For the next three years, the café business created many new contacts, and Henry and Kate guided the local believers working there to lead many local youth to make decisions for Christ. The fellowship grew to nearly thirty who attended weekend worship services in Galen’s rented house. The role of the missionaries, however, had become more complex as they now provided access to financial as well as spiritual benefits.
From the time he had gained his vision for church planting in seminary, Galen had as his goal to turn over as quickly as possible the responsibilities of the church plant to local leaders. In the fourth year of this ministry Galen and Henry decided, after a season of prayer and fasting, that the men they had discipled were ready to begin to assume leadership of this blooming church plant. After assessing the spiritual gifts of the men and women in the group, they gradually encouraged individuals with the appropriate gifts to take leadership responsibility. With the help of Kate and Myra, they encouraged men and women alike to lead worship and to teach, and they rotated the responsibility for preaching among the men. While these young people did the work, Galen observed that men and women alike continued to come to them for direction. Further, once or twice a month Galen had to step in at the last minute and preach, when the man assigned for that week called to say he was sick and could not come. Kate also found herself helping more than she wanted to in the weekly Bible studies, as these young women turned to her for guidance and then stepped back as she responded to questions and issues of discussion.
Over the next two years, Galen and Henry turned the weekly services over to three of the young national leaders, all of whom worked in the Internet café. One had become the supervisor of the café and was quite effective in business. However, this man was not an effective preacher, and the people began to complain about him. Some in the group, seeing the pattern of other church plants in the area, asked that Galen and Henry appoint just one person to be the preaching pastor of the church. When Galen took a stand against this, the man who wanted to be preaching pastor left the group, and fifteen others from his ethnic group went with him to form their own fellowship. Three of the women who left still worked in the Internet café, and this created problems for their supervisor, who was hurt by their rejection of him as a spiritual leader.
When Galen and Kate departed for their second furlough, they were deeply discouraged. What had been such a promising church plant seemed shattered. Their vision had been to equip men and women to share Christ with others and to become the leaders of a new church-planting movement. Many young people had responded to the gospel, and they had seemed ripe for discipleship and leadership training. Yet, somehow the momentum had been lost. The fellowship was broken, relationships were shattered over who should preach, and instead of a movement, these believers wanted a traditional church structure that focused on Sunday services and preaching rather than mission. The only thing that seemed to be working was the Internet café, and in that Myra, as the financial manager and accountant, assured its ongoing success.
Good People, Misguided Leadership
In the example of the Internet café, we can discern a fundamental flaw in this team’s leadership. Although Galen and Henry thought they had done an effective job of church planting, after nearly eight years of work they had become the owners of the business, senior management that propped up all the ministries. Everything that happened originated from their vision and initiative. Although they had carefully nurtured a team of three men, Galen notes that these men turned to them for direction in even minor matters. The church they had planted looked very much like a successful community of believers, but in reality these people had become dependent on the expatriate missionaries.
What went wrong? These missionaries had learned the national language of government and education. They had diligently shared the gospel with people who had not heard, and when many responded, they organized them as a community of believers and faithfully taught them the foundational doctrines and practices of Christian living and witness. With their considerable ministry training and skills, they had organized a form of church that they believed would reproduce and tried diligently to train local people to carry out these ministries. In spite of their best efforts, their leadership training failed to achieve their objectives. At times these new believers deferred to expatriate skill and expertise, and at other times they resorted to familiar local patterns of leadership.
Although Galen and Henry were frustrated with their disciples’ responses, they did not recognize their contribution to the situation. What they had hoped would become a movement of their disciples sharing Christ in their communities and beyond was instead a weak community propped up by the skill and diligent work of these two missionary couples. In spite of their theological and missionary training, in the stress of an emerging church-planting ministry, Galen, Kate, Henry, and Myra had defaulted to habits of leadership and church from their home cultures and had failed to understand that their disciples were doing the same.
This book is about very good people who practice misguided leadership, leadership that seems right but jeopardizes and sometimes destroys their vision and ministries. Like Galen, Kate, Henry, and Myra, most of these people feel called by God and sacrifice themselves wholeheartedly to the work of ministry. Many are deeply sensitive to the people they lead to Christ and desire above everything else to see these women and men mature in their relationship with Christ and become part of the work of ministry to reach their communities with the gospel. Yet all Christian leaders, regardless of their cultural background, carry their personal histories and cultural biases with them wherever they serve. And like Galen and Henry, they cannot see how their histories and culture shape their ministries and blind them to the unintended consequences of these practices and values in their discipleship and leadership-training activities. They in fact are locked into “traditional behavior,” derived from their life histories and social context, even though young people such as Galen often adamantly deny having any “traditions” that influence their ministry.
But the fact is that all people engaged in Christian ministry bring to their work a culture and tradition of ministry and leadership. Throughout the history of the church, Christian communities have developed many and diverse understandings of what constitutes leading and leadership. In their recent edited volume, Richard Mouw and Eric Jacobsen (2006) present nine different traditions of leadership in the faith communities of Western culture. Each of them presumes certain characteristics of structure, certain notions about authority, and an understanding of theology and faith that influences and defines what each tradition means by leading and leadership. And each of these cases documents in some way a struggle with the inherent contradictions between social traditions and the teachings of Scripture on faith community and leadership.
The argument presented in the following chapters examines how even the most current traditions of leadership are culturally bound, and when applied in cross-cultural and multicultural contexts, these traditions become obstacles to effective ministry.
What Is Leading?
Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter (2004) have done a masterful job of summarizing the vast literature on leadership written in the United States. In the opening chapter of their book, they address the question of the difference between leadership and management. They state very clearly that management is not leadership. “Leadership activity is aligning people” by translating vision and values “into understandable and attainable acts. . . . Managers achieve their goals by organizing and staffing” (2004, 18). Banks and Ledbetter go on to define the characteristics of leadership in terms of vision, setting direction, monitoring trends, and motivating and inspiring people to follow. Their insights are helpful as we seek to answer the question, what is leading? Yet secular and business perspectives on leadership are inadequate for Christian ministry.
For the purpose of this book, I will reference the leadership literature from time to time but give priority and privilege to insights that we gain from the life and teaching of Jesus and from the Scriptures written by those who followed him. This book is about the clash of worldviews inherent in cross-cultural and multicultural relationships and the impact of that clash on the practice of leadership. In my view the gospel is transcultural, and the life and teaching of Jesus gives Christian leaders the spiritual resources essential to meet the challenges of interpersonal conflicts and misunderstandings that arise when teams and followers embrace conflicting worldviews. The Internet café church-planting team thought they were applying these spiritual resources well, but they failed to acknowledge and address the worldview conflicts.
The language and definitions of leading that follow have been stimulated by the leadership literature and study and reflection on the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament. The discussion focuses on issues of relationships and community that are foundational to the life and work of Christian community. I begin by defining several key features of what constitutes leading and then conclude with a statement of what “leading” means as addressed in this book.
The first characteristic of leading is building trust within a relational community. Galen and Henry focused on teaching new believers the truths of Scripture and the practice of ministry, but they did not focus on building mutual trust. Likewise, Kate and Myra gave greater priority to evangelism and good business than to building trust relationships essential for leadership in Christian community. In a public, business, or secular context, it is clearly possible to lead without having trust relationships; within Christian community, however, the building of trust is a fundamental characteristic of leadership. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that the people who follow him, the “good shepherd,” trust him (John 10:4–5). They know his voice. They will not follow a stranger because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice. From the perspective of the Gospels, building trust is a key feature of leading. Many stories illustrate how Jesus engaged in those trust-building relationships with his disciples. John 1:35–51 describes how Jesus encountered Andrew and a friend and invited them to come and stay with him. They followed him and spent a Sabbath with him. Afterward Andrew invited his brother Simon Peter to come and get acquainted with Jesus. Through these relational engagements, Jesus inspired the confidence and trust of these men.
The second characteristic of leading in the life of Christ is the defining of a compelling vision for life. Andrew reported to his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” Jesus then encountered Peter and Andrew fishing, and he challenged them, “‘Come, follow me, . . . and I will send you out to catch people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him” (Matt. 4:19–20). Jesus proclaimed a new vision of the kingdom of heaven that redefined the kind of relationships that people have with one another and with God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. . . . Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:3–9). To reflect again on the case study, Galen and Kate were driven by a vision for multiplication church planting, but this vision had little if any meaning for their new converts and disciples. Further, none of these new believers understood the wonder of the kingdom of heaven, and none was willing to leave everything and follow (Matt. 19:27).
A third characteristic of leading is stepping out ahead. Again in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). Jesus did not ask his disciples to do anything that he had not already done with them. He called them to accompany him as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, taught the crowds, and healed the sick. After they had seen and heard him many times, he sent them out, two by two, to do the same. Jesus’s example suggests that leading means doing the things that you expect those who follow you to do and showing them by your actions and example that this is the way to walk and to live. Our Eurasian church planters understood this principle and did lead by action and example. But once again they did not grasp the worldview conflicts, and they quickly reverted to the routines of their home culture—singing, preaching, teaching, study, and then the business of the Internet café. These activities, perhaps church work rather than kingdom work, proved to be the undoing of their vision.
The fourth principle that Jesus employed was calling others to follow him. Jesus met Peter, James, and John at their fishing boats, overwhelmed them with a catch that nearly caused their boats to sink, and then called them to leave it all and follow him (Luke 5:1–11). Jesus also encountered Levi, a tax collector, and invited him to follow. The importance of the principle of “calling” is that people often are waiting for such an invitation, and when they receive it, they respond by following. Paul encourages Corinthian believers: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Following Christ must be the first priority of every believer, and that means becoming a follower before one even considers a calling to lead. Galen and Myra were particularly good at inviting others to follow, but they were too good at what they did. Their followers were intimidated, fearing their lack of skill and confidence. Galen’s disciples deferred to his preaching and teaching skill, and Myra’s employees were just that. None of these local people felt secure enough to step up and participate as leaders in this new context.
The fifth and last principle is empowering those who follow you—a leader or leadership team (two or more)—and sending them out to do the same things that you have done. Luke 9:1–6 details how Jesus granted power and authority to the Twelve who had followed him and sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God. From this example, we see that leading is much more than having people follow you; it is mentoring them in such a way that you can empower and release them to do the same thing on their own that you have done with them. The men and women in the Eurasia team sought to mentor new believers, but they did this from their own cultural experience and agendas. They failed to learn how mentors lead others in this Eurasian culture and rejected essential social activities and expectations that would have enabled trust and the empowerment of others.
Leading, then, is inspiring people who participate with you in a community of trust to follow you—a leader or a leadership team—and be empowered by you to achieve a compelling vision of faith. Working from this definition, and the example of Jesus from the Gospels, we might ask Galen and his team to reflect on their church plant. How did they end up becoming an “Internet café” that propped up a weak church plant? As we reflect on their story, we see that they clearly had a vision for church planting and training leaders to lead this new church. They excelled in stepping out ahead, showing what must be done, and gaining the trust of their disciples to follow them; in fact, the disciples themselves often limited their behavior to following. But as we look more closely at Galen and Henry’s plan, their priority was “the organization and establishing of a new church.” Galen and his team called the meeting and identified the men and women who should become the core leaders. Galen, Kate, Henry, and Myra set the agenda and the time frame in which all these things should happen. And Galen had as his goal “to turn over as quickly as possible the responsibilities of the church plant to local leaders.” Although Henry’s Chinese background made him less urgent, he too wanted his disciples to take more responsibilities.
Galen and his team failed in the most important priority for leaders: building a community of trust. These believers trusted Galen and the mission team, but they did not trust one another, an obstacle exacerbated by their two different ethnic backgrounds. When Galen suggested that they take responsibility for preaching and other duties, fear of rejection by their peers paralyzed them. These believers accepted the formal organization proposed by the missionaries as long as the missionaries took responsibility. When G...